Bax’s violent and phantasmal
Sixth Symphony is the central
work here and is also essential Bax
in performance and recording terms.
This Sixth is the version
from which I ‘learnt’ the work; its
impact has not dimmed with the passing
years. The CD transfer conveys with
fidelity the indelibly imprinted remembered
experience. How sad when a work’s first
recording is less than successful. It
can result in it being condemned for
collateral reasons which are in fact
to do with a misjudged performance or
flawed recording. That is not the case
here. Norman Del Mar takes hold of the
work and his grip is relentless.
There have been four
other recordings since 1966 but only
David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos comes close
to this one. It makes a great budget
price alternative. Vernon Handley in
his reading on Chandos
takes only 35:33; that’s four minutes
shorter than Del Mar. Handley takes
the second and third movements faster
than Del Mar and, having lived with
this version for several years, Del
Mar has the edge despite the splendours
of the Chandos and BBCPO sound. The
present Lyrita version has gravitas
and poetry to a more intense degree.
The higher strings play with silky slipperiness
and the yearning phrasing is spot-on.
The tempo and hesitations in the tired
yet life-enhancing march at 8:49 in
the second movement have never been
caught as well. And have the waves of
the first movement crashed down with
such elemental violence before. However
the touchstone is the finale. Its mercurial
character pulses from the romantic desolate
clarinet (0:49) to the pawky humour
of the giddy bassoon (4:49), the groan
and moan of the brass (2:00) and the
rockingly trusting and tender strings
(6:43). The ppp seagull flicker
(4:03) predictive of the finale of the
Seventh and last symphony gives place
to the barkingly climactic monumentality
of those hoarse and rock-steady syncopated
horns (9:49). Then comes the poised
falling away into the tranced glitter
and glimmer of the epilogue. The work
is rounded not so much with a sleep
but with a shimmering vision even it
is delectably troubled by the bass drum’s
ominous beat (14:30). Also wonderful
for such a veteran analogue recording
is the voluptuous sound complete with
the famed spotlighting of solo instruments
and graphically defined stereo separation.
This is the CD I would recommend as
a starting place to anyone about to
start exploring Bax’s symphonic works.
Bax Symphony No. 6 comparatives:-
The symphony was first
issued on LP as SRCS 35 whose strangely
anonymous sleeve design became the uniform
standard for all the Lyrita recordings
of the Bax symphonies – the only differentiation
being the tint. The cover design for
this new CD is commandingly colourful
and completely apt.
The other four items
are well worth having too. Let’s start
with the digitally recorded Bax overtures.
as an ENSA wartime commission, with
its Coatesian cheeriness is light Bax
but still extremely listenable. It does
not suffer from the bleached out blandness
of much of the Oliver Twist score.
It’s the work’s first ever recording
– the last Bax overture to be recorded.
Overture to Adventure has
been recorded once before by Douglas
Bostock on ClassicO. It’s a work from
peak maturity in the 1930s and here
benefits from Handley’s firm hand and
from the sound of an orchestra so much
richer than that available to Bostock.
It’s a dynamic and swashbuckling piece
redolent of the ‘Nordic’ Bax - the Northern
Ballads (especially the First and Third).
The Rogue’s Comedy Overture
has been recorded before and is
available as a filler to Chandos’s complete
Bax symphonies. It too is from the high
water years of the 1930s but it is more
of an extended frolic being close in
spirit if not in soundworld to the Overture
to a Picaresque Comedy. This is
relaxed Bax often sounding uncannily
Bohemian – and there are moments when
I was forcefully reminded of Smetana
and Fibich – especially Fibich’s bubbly
A Night in Karlstein. The Irish
Landscape was recorded much
earlier and in analogue. It is a gorgeous
piece typical of Bax’s starry Celtic
fantasy style and is buoyed up by a
memorable melody from a master of melodies.
During the Autumn Lyrita
will be issuing Symphonies 2 (Fredman)
and 5 (Leppard) on a single CD. Symphonies
1 (Fredman) and 7 (Leppard) are on SRCD.232.
In case you were wondering: Lyrita never
recorded Bax’s Third and Fourth symphonies.
In LP days these were covered by Revolution
(4/Handley – urgent but at that time
in scary shrill sound) and RCA (3, Downes
– drowsy and lacking dynamism).
The Del Mar/Lyrita
Bax 6 is violent and phantasmal - essential
Bax in performance and recording terms.
The other items simply underline the
urgency of Baxians acquiring this collection.